By John Fanta
The University of Alabama’s incoming freshman class ranks in the top 10 among all major recruiting sites. You’ve heard that before.
This time though, I’m not talking about that guy named Saban.
That’s right, the spotlight’s on Avery Johnson, who brings in the highest-ranked recruiting class in Crimson Tide basketball history. Entering his third season at the helm in Tuscaloosa, Johnson has an NCAA Tournament roster.
The Crimson Tide, which finished 19-15 a season ago but went to the SEC Tournament Semifinals, returns its top three scorers. Before looking at a stacked incoming freshman unit, here’s a look at the standout returnees.
One of the best freshmen in the SEC in 2016-17, 6-foot-8 Braxton Key led the Tide in points (12) and rebounds (5.7) per game. He’s a tough match-up with those skills alone, but what makes Key even more difficult to guard is his passing ability. The forward tallied 2.5 assists per contest, good for second on the team.
That’s not the only player who’s a nightmare to guard for the Crimson Tide. Alabama returns its primary ball handler, 6-foot-5 Dazon Ingram, who was second on the team with 10.8 points per game while finishing with 3.3 dishes per contest, a team-best. The rising sophomore’s length is what separates him from others, and with a year under his belt, expect him to improve.
With so much young talent, you may be wondering where the veteran comes in. Johnson has one of those on his 2017-18 roster as well. Sharpshooter Riley Norris is one of only two seniors on the squad and will look to build on his team-high 47 triples in 2016-17. Norris ranked third on the team with nine points per game.
Leading the way for Alabama’s newcomers is the No. 6 recruit in ESPN’s Top 100, point guard Collin Sexton. The McDonald’s All-American gives Johnson a great problem to have, with Ingram getting joined by Sexton to give the Tide exceptional point guard depth. The burden isn’t completely on Sexton to save the program and be their orchestrator from day one. He will, of course, be their star, but the top recruit from the state of Georgia will have assistance. This past summer, Sexton led Team USA to a gold medal at the FIBA Under 17 Championships where he was named Most Valuable Player. If you didn’t know him yet, you do now, and you’ll be seeing plenty of him in college basketball highlights in just a matter of months.
Joining Sexton as the Crimson Tide’s second five-star recruit is 6-foot-5 John Petty. Named Mr. Basketball in Alabama in 2016 and 2017, Petty is ranked 21st in the ESPN 100. The shooting guard not only can score the ball well, but averaged over four assists. Arguably the most impressive stat is that he posted over seven rebounds per game. As if the Crimson Tide already presented enough unique match-ups, Petty adds to their arsenal.
On top of the pair of five-star recruits, Alabama welcomes in four-star power forward Alex Reese (Pelham, AL), three-star shooting guard Herb Jones (Moundville, AL), and three-star center Galin Smith (Clinton, MS).
Three Things to Know:
1. With such a young team, defense would typically be a concern. But, with their core players back, Alabama is actually coming off a stellar year on that end of the floor. The Crimson Tide allowed the fewest points per game in the SEC, giving up just 64.7. Even South Carolina, which reached the Final Four behind Sindarius Thornwell and a hard-nosed D, finished second at 65.3 points allowed.
2. On the flip side, Johnson had trouble getting his group consistent on the offensive end last year. The Tide finished last in the SEC with just 68.7 points per game this past season. The Tide’s newcomers are stacked with talent, but how will they mesh with the returnees? That’s not as concerning of a question as it would be for other teams going through this because Alabama can only improve offensively.
3. A foreign trip to Canada in August should help Alabama come together more, but the Crimson Tide’s non-conference schedule will not give them the chance to ease themselves into the season. Alabama will spend Thanksgiving Weekend in the Barclays Center Classic. They’ll take on either BYU, Minnesota, or UMass on Nov. 24 and 25. The Golden Gophers will most likely be a preseason Top 25 team this upcoming season.
A gruesome stretch at the beginning of December will be huge for the Crimson Tide’s resume. Alabama hosts UCF on Dec. 3 and Rhode Island on Dec. 6, followed by a trip to Arizona on Dec. 9. The Rams and Wildcats will likely be picked to win the Atlantic 10 and Pac 12, respectively, and UCF will be a good challenge for the Tide.
Throw in a showdown with Texas on Dec. 22 in Birmingham and a home tilt with Oklahoma in January’s SEC-Big 12 Challenge, and it’s a stacked slate.
One thing is for certain – Alabama is one of the teams you can’t watch soon enough into the season because of their amount of talent. Can Johnson lead the Crimson Tide to the NCAA Tournament, where the program hasn’t been since 2012? The door is open in the SEC for a team to rise and build a storyline in the conference’s top tier. Kentucky and Florida are the preseason leaders in the league next season, but the conference’s “new kid on the block” will be sitting out in Tuscaloosa.
Follow John Fanta on Twitter at @John_Fanta and College Hoops Digest at @NCAAHoopsDigest